Stinging nettle might be the first plant I ever learned to identify. The second was the dock leaf that grows next door, which alleviates the pain of the sting. These two plants, hand in hand, in many ways initiated me into the world of plants. And because of that, nettle holds a very special place in my heart. In fact, when I moved into this little house, the first thing I did was plant some nettles out by the kitchen door. They've now grown into a huge patch that is constantly sending out leaves and seeds, much to the chagrin of unassuming neighbours and workmen.
The flavour of nettles is often compared to spinach, but I disagree- I think it's much more meaty tasting than spinach, and much more like lambs quarters in flavour. However if you like green things and haven't tasted them before, I say give it a try, as they're delicious. The sting, which can be oh-so brutal, is neutralised in cooking, and I've had no problem with being stung after blending them raw, or when drying them.
Sting-ability varies. My back garden nettle will leave welts on my arms for about 2 days, whereas I’ve picked some local varieties that only sting for a couple of hours (but then also had numb fingers for a day or so from other local ones). The sting is harmless, albeit annoying, slightly painful, and often ugly. And it's often useful, as I'll explain shortly.
The medicinal properties of nettle are numerous and varied. To make things easier, I'll split it into three parts- the leaf, seed and root.
Urtica spp: Nettle leaf
bitter, cold, dry, salty, astringent
Nettle leaf has been used as medicine for millenia. The most useful thing to remember about it is its high mineral content- according to Paul Bergner, “An ounce of nettles contains more than the minimum daily requirement of calcium, two-thirds of the requirement for magnesium,
and more than a third of the requirement for potassium.” Because of this it is unbelievably nutritious, and invaluable for deficient people, ex-vegetarians, current vegetarians, anemics, those experiencing adrenal fatigue, and a whole host of weakness-related issues. Think of how a deficient person would look- weak, pale and tired- and you have a pretty good picture for nettle infusions
Other symptoms that fit this deficient picture are low blood pressure, chronic diarrhea (I’ve had no success using them for acute, and no opportunity to use them for chronic cases, so I cannot say whether I know this to be true or not), concentration issues, foggy head, hair loss, thin hair, lax tissues, swollen tongue and general tiredness and the feeling that one is dragging ones feet through life.
It it through this nutritive effect that nettle also acts as an alterative, and so is often used for ‘detoxification’. I like the appalachian description of ‘bad blood’, even though it technically has nothing to do with the blood- but bad blood is basically an accumulation of toxins in the extracellular fluids of the body. I picture the waterways of the body as being bogged down with crap: this is the kind of picture that alteratives are good for. Symptoms of bad blood can range from simple sluggishness to eczema, allergies, acne, constipation, swollen glands, tumours, foul discharges, arthritis, chronic fatigue, psychological imbalances.
Nettle acts on this extracellular fluid, helping the body remove waste products. Because of this it is also highly effective for gout- something I have had a few opportunities to try on people quite successfully (often combined with dandelion). And it’s also used frequently for asthma (I have not tried this yet though).
Another thing that nettle is great for is the hair. Rinsing the hair with nettle infusions strengthens the hair, and makes it thick and shiny. I’m too lazy to keep up with this on a regular basis but I do notice a nice difference when I do it for more than a week at a time, and have heard stories of amazing hair growth from nettle rinses.
Nettle seeds are great for restoring worn out adrenals and kidneys. Many people find the fresh seeds too ‘speedy’. I don’t- I do find they give me an almost immediate energy boost though, and I can often plough through my afternoon required nap time if I’ve eaten a teaspoon or so of nettle seeds. Dried, they do not have this effect, and are a fantastic tonic. According to Kiva Rose, they promote “a sense of clarity, wellness, heightened energy levels, reduced stress and seemingly increased lung capacity” when eaten.
Nettle root has been used for edema, kidney and bladder infections, and recently has started to be used for BPH (swollen prostate). I haven’t had opportunity to try this, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Flogging oneself with nettle leaves reportedly relieves arthritis pains. Nobody will try it- maybe if you get arthritis you can, and then let me know?
I've used the sting on burns, after cleverly searing my lower arm on hot oil, I'd just been reading about using urtica homeopathic for burns, so I ran out and flogged my arm with nettle leaves. I don't necessarily recommend this at home- I think a vinegar compress would be less painful and heroic looking, but I tell ya. I was blistering, it looked bad, and after being covered in stings and welts, the blistering went away and the arm was just red for about an hour, and then that went away too. The welts stuck around for 2 days though...
Preparation and dosage:
Leaf: For the nutritive effects, nettle leaves are best eaten or taken in an infusion, though a tincture will work in a pinch. To make an infusion, put one cup of dried leaves in a quart jar. Top it up with boiling water and let it steep for at least 4 hours, then drink it over the course of a couple of days. They need to be drank on a regular basis- so drinking it once won’t have the desired effect. Make drinking infusions a part of your daily routine (I often brew mine at night, and in the morning decant it into a giant water bottle that I tote around with me. People sometimes ask me what the hell is in my bottle. And sometimes I reply that it’s urine and walk off. Then they avoid me and I wonder why I have no friends *sigh*), and you’ll start to notice a difference in your energy levels. It could take a few days or a few weeks, everybody is different. By the way, if you hate the taste like I do, you can add some mint or ginger. I find that a tablespoon of mint makes them much more palatable.
Seed: You can make a seed tincture and it will work, but they’re really best just eaten plain. I really like the taste of them, especially fresh (picture a nut and a green thing had a baby), but many people don’t. I read a great way to get around that on The Herbwife’s Kitchen blog: grind up your nettle seeds with some salt, and throw the whole lot in a salt shaker. I keep my nettle salt on top of the stove and add them to almost everything I cook now. Dosage can be anything from a pinch to a tablespoon per day.
Cautions and contraindications:
Nettle leaf is a diuretic and can be highly drying, especially to those folks living in the Southwest deserty areas. Exercise caution if taking diuretic drugs. If you find them too drying you can add a pinch of licorice or mallow to your infusions.
Nettle seed can be too speedy for some. Start slow- with a tiny pinch- and work your way up to a dosage that suits you.
Kiva Rose’s lovely monograph on urtica
Matthew Wood: The Earthwise Herbal (497)
The Herbwife’s Kitchen blog
Paul Bergner lecture notes